Opera in the Wake of Rising Anti-Semitism

Photo: Alan Chin

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Museum of Jewish Heritage, NYC

Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie's operatic adaptation of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a well-meaning show. This co-production between the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbienne and New York City Opera is performing in a limited run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, appropriately billed as "A Living Memorial to the Holocaust." With the recent and steady rise of anti-Semitic attacks and outrages in America and Europe, this well-known narrative treating the Italian Jewish Community at the inception of World War II is worthy of reprise; the timing couldn’t be better. Most of us know The Garden of the Finzi-Continis through Vittorio De Sica's 1970 movie rather than from the original book of the same name by Giorgio Bassani which appeared in 1962.

The opera replicates the book in using the framing device from Bassani's novel (omitted from the film) of having the hero, Giorgio walking through the cemetery and ruined synagogue of Ferrara, the site of the story, where -- long after the war’s end -- he learns that the entire Jewish population of the city no longer exists. The eternal light the Finzi-Continis patriarch had paid to keep lit has gone out. He is joined onstage by the shades of the former Jewish community as they sing of the Ferrara of better days. This is one of the few times the ensemble appears onstage in its entirety. They are well-cast, and have haunting faces whose typicality is heightened by the period costuming. It is such a pity that we don't see much more of them as the opera unfolds. This is one of several important missed opportunities.

Other memorable scenes and nuances in the relationships from the movie are excluded or adapted in such a way as to simplify the contending dramatic forces.  In so doing, the emotional impact of the piece is diminished. In the opera, Giorgio's family celebrates Passover with a seder. In the film his family -- which is characterized as cultured, sensitive, and prosperously middle class (contrary to the almost gross and brute depiction in the opera) -- is seen singing a traditional Italian-Jewish counting song. While it is evidently a children's song for Passover, all the adults quaintly participate. The song is repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from anonymous callers who refuse to speak -- intimating the sinister rise of anti-Semitic fascism and heightening the danger to the family. It would have been a natural scene to musicalize in the opera, but isn't included. Likewise in the opera, Giorgio's father who initially supports Mussolini, is depicted as a dogmatic brute who sticks to his guns, so Giorgio may come off as a misunderstood, prescient party. Their relationship -- through overlong scenes is depicted as a static impasse. But in the film Giorgio's father relents, admits that his son was right, and does all he can to strengthen their beautifully established relationship. The subtlety of those dynamics would have provided ebbs and flows that the opera misses out on.

Similarly, there is a sub-plot of the gay Finzi-Continis son, Alberto. In the opera -- opting again for the strident and reductive approach -- he is shown as hopelessly stigmatized and doomed in his obsessive hero-worship of the charismatic Socialist Gampiero Malnate. In the opera Malnate is clueless, whereas in the film all their scenes have a homoerotic (and reciprocal) charge. Even the scenes between Malnate and the supposedly exclusively heterosexual Giorgio could be read that way, providing ambiguity and layering. Likewise, in the movie, Alberto's uncle is explicitly portrayed as gay as well, and a role-model for him. De Sica's film has a lovely scene in which the uncle sits in Alberto's bedroom, languidly fanning himself at the window, a lost opportunity for a sultry duet. The uncle in the opera is given virtually no character whatever. These artistic choices sadly diminish the opera.

Photo: Alan Chin

There are positive aspects to the evening. The intricate orchestrations of the music often suggest nuances and cross-currents which the narrative flattens out. And the 14-piece orchestra under James Lowe's passionate and energetic baton plays their hearts out. John Farrell's simple, but ingenious set design allows for fluidity of set changes and transformations of locale. And Anthony Ciaramitaro interprets Giorgio with commitment and sensitivity. Yet the often clumsy and forced rhymes of the lyrics pull energy from the potentially heart-wrenching dramatic situations and cause the wrong kind of audience response. When the librettist jettisons rhyming it can be better, but that doesn’t happen too often. Maybe it would have been better in Italian; there are sub-titles in any case. This is, sadly, a tantalizing opportunity which falls short in too many ways.

Mr. Willinger is a professor at City College of New York, holds a Ph.D in Theatre, award-winning writer, and critic.

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